The story of the Prodigal Son (in Luke 15) remains the most enduring picture that Jesus painted of the love of God the Father for his wandering children.
And “Father” was the way Jesus taught us to think of God. It was his characteristic form of expression in prayer, and, of course, forms the starting point of the prayer that he taught his disciples. “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
Do you feel comfortable addressing God as “Father?” Your answer may say a lot about your own story from your personal past, or from your experience of being a father yourself in the present. But Jesus wasn’t fazed by any human inadequacy. In Luke 11, directly following the teaching of the “Lord’s Prayer,” he jokes: “‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”
Do you see it? “You then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…” Your own inadequate experience of being a father is enough to enable understanding of what God is like.
The Bible never really answers the question:“Who is God?” It starts with the assumption that God just IS. “In the beginning, God…” When Moses asked about it, at the burning bush (in Exodus 3), God described himself as ”I AM who I AM.” At its simplest level, that means the One who is fully here, right now!
And if you know that, you know the most fundamental truth in the universe.
And that’s what Jesus invites us to explore. How do we pray? Pray like this… The Lord’s Prayer begins with a simple statement about who God is. And the key to understanding the whole of the Lord’s Prayer is get that first phrase right.
Think first of the “Our”
When you say “Our,” you are admitting that you do not pray alone. When we pray “Our Father” as a congregation, we cease to be individuals coming to church with our own particular burdens. Instead, we become part of a family with a common heritage and with shared values. It is a family created by the new birth and made possible by the shed blood of Christ. This is our COMMUNITY.
That’s a significant point. Biblically, the only people who can call God “Father” are those who are the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26). It’s popular to say “We’re all God’s children” with a glibness that blurs the distinctions between those who know Jesus Christ and those who don’t. But in contrast to those who would apply the Lord’s Prayer to everyone, even to non-believers, we make the point: This is is a prayer only true Christians can pray.
Second, you are to call him “Our Father.” It means he is right here, right now and for you! Whatever a good father on earth would do for his children, that’s what God in heaven will do for his children. Tim Keller put it this way: “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is his child.”
We have that kind of access….
My kids do not need an appointment!
Third, we pray to our Father who is “in heaven“. That’s usually a throwaway line for most of us. We tend to think it means that earth is where we are “down here,” and heaven is where God is, “up there,” which we imagine is “way beyond the blue.” That’s not what it means. It is not a spatial term but a spiritual term. The phrase “in heaven” refers to heaven as the center of the universe and the seat of all authority and power and dominion and greatness. Therefore, when you say, “Our father in heaven,” you are proclaiming that he has the authority and power to hear you and to help you when you pray. It is precisely because God is in heaven that he has the power to help you.
You have a “Friend in High Places.”
This is how you pray! In community, with your family, and under authority. You do not pray alone; you are not left alone and you do not struggle alone. We pray together to the one who is powerful and loving, to the one who CAN effect change and to the one who loves to do so.
And nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in the story to which I already referred. In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells of a foolish son, demanding his inheritance, squandering his wealth and losing everything, money, reputation and self-esteem. He is reduced to feeding the pigs before he comes to his senses and starts the long, wearisome road home to his father to say sorry. But Jesus gives the familiar tale something of a twist: the father welcomes him. Wholeheartedly, unresevedly and unconditionally.
Jesus wanted his listeners (and us too) to understand what God’s fatherhood looks like.
There are five signs of the father’s welcome:
- The kiss, the sign of forgiveness.
- The robe, the sign of honor.
- The ring, the sign of authority.
- The sandals, the sign of freedom.
- The feast, the sign of a joyful welcome.
And Jeus makes the point: You’ve never done anything that could make God stop loving you.
Aren’t you glad this prayer didn’t begin, “O First Principle, Hallowed be thy name,” or “O Ground of all Being, Give us this day our daily bread.” We wouldn’t have believed that. That wouldn’t have helped us. We can’t begin with the holliness or justice of God. We can’t begin with the provision of God, either. We begin with the fatherhppd of God and those other things stem from this.
It’s such a powerful principle. If you ever struggle with a sense of frustration or powerlessness or loneliness, these first two words of the Lord’s Prayer are for you! Does anyone care? Is there anybody up there who cares about me? Is there anybody up there who watches over me? Is there anybody up there who knows my name? And the answer comes back-Yes. Yes. Yes. There is a God in heaven who cares about you. And he is called Father.
Speaking for myself, I have three thoughts about my own father.
- My father carried the heavy suitcase
- My father had the final word
- My father wanted me to succeed
He would not let me be burdened more than I could manage. He freed me from the decisions that I couldn’t yet make. And yet he urged me forward to try, and to go for it, to be manly and gutsy about my decisions.
And how much more than that is God…. our Father?